That rare contemporary filmmaker blessed with the degree of critical cachet and international respect that allows him the freedom to work at his own pace, Wong Kar-wai’s films invariably transmute en-route, gaining and losing cast members and technicians, and sometimes end up bearing almost no resemblance to the project that was announced. However, 2046's journey to the screen was positively Kubrickian, taking the better part of four years. Even after months in post-production (which led to inescapable quips about the title also representing the movie’s release date), 2046 arrived three hours late for its (already delayed) Cannes screening, immediately after which Wong took the movie right back into the editing room for one more fine-tuning (reportedly adding four minutes and slightly altering the score) prior to its general release overseas. Happily, in the wake of such long-simmering anticipation, we are blessed with one of the director’s finest works to date, a beguiling intermingling of characters and themes from DAYS OF BEING WILD and IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, exquisitely produced and performed in the manner that has made Wong one of the most admired cinematic artists of the past two decades.
Three years after the events depicted in MOOD, writer Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) is still burdened by memories of his failed relationship with Su Lizhen (Maggie Cheung Man-yuk). He checks into a Wanchai hotel and requests room 2046, the number of the apartment in which he and Lizhen shared their most prized moments together. As that one is not yet available, he settles for 2047 and courts high class prostitute Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi), who falls for him against her better judgment. Mo-wan also develops feelings for the hotel owner’s daughter (Faye Wong), an aspiring writer deeply in love with a Japanese man (Takuya Kimura) her father despises for no reason other than his nationality. Mo-wan also recalls earlier days in Singapore, where he encountered Su Lizhen (Gong Li), a mysterious gambler known as Black Spider, who uses her talents to help him out of a financial jam. However, in spite of an obvious, intense connection between them, this Lizhen cannot remain with him for reasons of her own. As Mo-wan grows more and more immersed in his world of fiction, he concentrates on a science fiction story called "2046." While set in the future, "2046" is not so much a time as a place and Mo-wan’s present situation and mind set are reflected entirely in his fictional creations.
The above synopsis provides a general overview of the events unfolding in 2046, adding an unavoidable conventionality to a cursive storyline that operates on several levels, including the notion of traveling to the future to revel in one’s memories of the past. Most of the story unfolds in ‘60s Hong Kong, with our view of Mo-wan’s fictional creation confined almost exclusively to a seemingly endless ride aboard a similarly limitless train. Some have criticized the CGI FX in these scenes as being cartoonish, but like the train’s sterile interiors and the outlandish uniforms and hairstyles sported by its android attendants, the fanciful look is in-keeping with the sort of involved, overwhelmingly gaudy future that a ‘60s writer might well dream up.
While it was originally intended to be something completely different, 2046 evolved into a most unusual and effective continuance of not only IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, but also DAYS OF BEING WILD. Carina Lau Kar-ling’s reprisal of her character, Lulu (still capricious, grasping, and thoroughly unsuccessful with men), is accompanied by an echo of Yuddy, Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing’s troubled protagonist. The noble and gentlemanly Mo-wan has devolved into a rather cold and cynical man unable to commit, a somewhat milder distillation of traits displayed by Yuddy. The dependably suave and subtle Leung (who has a silent, introductory cameo at the end of DAYS) flawlessly personifies this evolution, displaying similarly caddish behavior yet still retaining some viewer sympathy because he is also torturing himself, while Yuddy’s misogyny arose from his mother’s abandonment of him and seems routed entirely in revenge. Zhang Ziyi also gives an exceptional, heartbreaking performance in a role that offers her many challenges and Gong Li imbues a small, seemingly one-note supporting character with a world-weary melancholy that conveys volumes. A decade after she almost stole CHUNGKING EXPRESS, Faye Wong retains her impish allure and, if the role seems more ornamental than her fellow Mainland actresses, it is no less vital to the look and ambiance Wong Kar-wai has strived for.
The film’s long gestation and Wong’s improvisational style have, not surprisingly, caused some of the film’s name performers to be almost entirely absent from the final cut. The prominently billed Chang Chen (HAPPY TOGETHER), Dong Jie (HAPPY TIMES), and Thai actor Bird Thongchai McIntyre barely appear, but Siu Ping-lam makes a memorable return appearance from MOOD as Mo-wan’s flaky editor and Maggie Cheung captivates in what barely qualifies as a cameo. Christopher Doyle had to depart the production, due to other commitments, with the balance lensed by two other cinematographers, but the visuals remain consistently arresting in the familiar WK-W style, from the purposeful use of color to the swirls of smoke wafting from omnipresent cigarettes. While some of 2046 seems markedly different, the film still operates in much the same manner as its two earlier chapters, reiterating the period clothing and hairstyles, varied music (including Nat "King" Cole and even Dean Martin), long takes, and a dreamlike atmosphere always on the margins of even the more conventional sequences. While not explicit in the least, the sexuality is more up-front and far less delicate (Gong and Leung share a kiss that is among the roughest yet most impassioned in memory, and both Zhang and Lau have bedroom scenes more daring than expected), yet these moments seem every bit as romantic, poetic, and heartfelt because of the viewer’s emotional investment and the fascinating, self-referential universe. This continual interweaving and amplification of memories produces as intoxicating and seductive an aura as Wong has created thus far in his films, making 2046 a captivating achievement and one that retains its allure in repeat viewings.